In the art world, the cultural calendar is marked by an ever-growing sequence of fairs and festivals, with biennales and triennales cropping up from South Korea to Morocco. By comparison, the itinerary in Design Land is fairly light: Though the field boasts a number of venerable trade functions (Salone, NeoCon) and a few non-commercial events (Venice, Lisbon), they simply don’t appear to be multiplying at the rate art fairs have been, and they tend receive altogether less public exposure.
Enter Le Festival des architectures vives (FAV)—literally, the Festival of Lively Architectures, an international exhibition held in the southern French city of Montpellier. Now going into its eighth year, FAV is a labor of love for its director, local architect Elodie Nourrigat, who helped bring the event to her home city after its maiden voyage in Paris in 2005. “We wanted to highlight the work of young architects,” Nourrigat explains, “and in Montpellier, there all these beautiful old buildings for them to play in.” The event has become a fixture in a town already celebrated for its contemporary architecture, with new large-scale projects from architects like Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, and Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, close at hand.
From a broad pool of applicants, the organizers select 10 young firms to create installations in the old front courts of the hotel particuliers, the urban mansions around the city, all of them reflecting the year’s designated theme; the practices submitting proposals are overwhelmingly European, but each year the directors also typically invite one non-European university to participate as well, for an eleventh pavilion: The 2013 contribution came from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
This year’s festival theme, “Memory,” drew a remarkable array of responses, from designer Lucien Puech’s stacked hay bales (reflecting the region’s pastoral history), to group Collectif RNDM’s winning “Prolepse” installation—a series of commemorative grave markers for assorted cultural phenomena (among them “Cancer” and “Maps”). This year’s FAV also marked the debut of a new sister exposition in the nearby beach community of La Grand-Motte; the Montpellier installations traveled to the second site and were joined by five additional pavilions.
Part of what makes an event like FAV so intriguing is the way in which it seems a fitting riposte to the hype and pretenses of all those glamorous global art fairs. Montpellier contributor Stefan Delvoye’s project—a dimmed courtyard strewn with rotting leaves—was an instance of how close the exhibitors could come to conventional artistic installations; yet the designer’s earnest investigation of space, ambiance, and environment made his piece feel free of the heavy conceptual (not to mention commercial) baggage that weighs down so much art-fair art. As Delvoye puts it, the festival creates “an atmosphere of surprise,” a place where “our crazy spatial interventions generate debate about this weird science of architecture.”